Original Sin Is Crucial Doctrine

Mar1, 2020: First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7
Psalms 51:3-6, 12-14
Romans 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Original Sin was the first scene in the long, complex drama of human history. Christ’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment will be the final scene. Everything in between is connected both to Original Sin and to the Last Judgment.

But today’s world has largely forgotten about these two pivotal milestones.

Because we have made so much progress in science and technology, we are constantly tempted to think… that we are totally self-sufficient, that we are not affected by the consequences of original sin, and that we will not be judged by a higher power (God) after we die. But that is just another version of the devil’s ancient lie. It’s as if the devil has convinced us that since we have learned to turn stones into bread, to dominate our physical, material world, we are gods ourselves, with no need for any other God. It’s the same lie that tricked Adam and Eve.

Today, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, the Church is exposing that lie.

During Lent, we pay special attention to our sins and sinful tendencies, precisely because we don’t want to forget the big picture, the bigger story that gives real meaning to our lives by reminding us that we are not self-sufficient.

Original Sin is one of the most important chapters in that story, and one of the most misunderstood.

Let’s take a few minutes to recall what it’s all about and why it’s one of the most important doctrines in the entire catechism.

There are three things we always need to keep in mind about original sin: the fact, the cause, and the effect.

First, the fact is that original sin happened.

This is part of God’s revelation. The Church makes this crystal clear. Here’s how the Catechism puts it (#390): The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This may seem obvious — but if it were, God would have felt no need to reveal it to us.

As fallen human beings, we are constantly being tempted to blame evil on abstract social structures, to chalk up sin to psychological traumas — in other words, to deny, ignore, or belittle the real source of evil in the world: original sin and its effects. But if we give in to that temptation, we will end up closing ourselves off from God and losing touch with reality. If our sinful tendencies are only due to a faulty upbringing, then we don’t need a savior to forgive our sins, we just need psychologists to give us therapy. If the evils of the world all stem from a faulty economic system or inept politicians, we don’t need God’s grace to change men’s hearts to improve society, we just need a new organizational chart.

The fact that original sin really happened has been revealed by God, and it is taught clearly by the Church; we need to let it sink into our personal view of the world and of ourselves.

It will help us understand reality and flourish amid it.

The second key doctrine about original sin has to do with what happened — what was the cause of original sin? The Church points out that the biblical account we just heard is told in figurative language, not in scientific or historical language. This means that it expresses the truth about what happened, but it doesn’t necessarily give exact details about how it happened. We can speculate about the how, but our speculation can never alter the what.

The first thing to note about what happened is that Adam and Eve were morally free beings. God had created them “in his image,” which means they could live in friendship with Him, of knowing and loving Him. But friendship with God is unique, because God is God, and we are dependent on Him.

Living in friendship with him (the only source of our true happiness) involves admitting and accepting that. Here’s how the Catechism puts it (#396): The ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust. Man is dependent on his Creator and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom.

We are not God. Our existence and happiness depend on God. If we don’t accept that, we are like a tree that wants to “free itself” from the soil — destined for disaster.

And that’s exactly what happened with Adam and Eve: they uprooted themselves from the soil of God’s friendship because they resented the fact that they weren’t equal to God. This was the essence of original sin (#397): Man, [tempted by the devil,] let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom,disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.

The devil had encouraged this rebellion with his lies. He had planted the temptation. But ultimately, Adam and Eve were responsible for giving into that temptation.

They freely abused the gift of freedom — they used it to try and make themselves independent of God instead of to come closer to God.

So original sin happened. And it consisted of our first parents rebelling against their dependence on God.

The third key point about original sin is, simply put, that original sin affected not only Adam and Eve, but the whole human race.

God created us as a family, and when our first parents rebelled against Him, the whole family suffered the consequences. The alienation that Adam and Eve felt from God (hiding in the garden) was passed on. The tendency to selfishness (tensions between Adam and Eve symbolized by the fig leaves) was passed on. The adversity of the forces of nature (symbolized by Eve’s pain in childbirth and Adam’s toil and sweat to earn a living) was also passed on. What’s more, the devil, whom Adam and Eve obeyed instead of God, gained through their rebellion a strong influence over human affairs (Catechism #407): “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.

Original sin was the origin not only of sin, but of the whole battle between good and evil that marks the history of every human life and community.

We all have two tendencies built into us now: the tendency towards goodness (that’s part of the nature that God created us with), and the tendency towards selfishness (that’s the fallen part of our nature).

Those two tendencies battle against each other in our hearts and in our relationships, and they will continue to do so our whole life long, even after baptism (Catechism #1264): …certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death… as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically ‘the tinder for sin.’

This battle that happens inside the human heart affects the whole course of human events, as can be proved by reading any newspaper or watching the news.

At first glance, this might seem discouraging: Life is a battle that won’t end until we die; there’s no escape from the struggle…

But Original Sin is only the beginning of the story. God didn’t abandon us. He could have. He had every right too. But He didn’t. He searched out Adam and Eve when they were hiding in the garden, and He searches for us. He sent us a Savior. Jesus Christ.

Unlike the first Adam, Christ, the new Adam, never disobeyed God the Father; He never let His trust in the Father die. From the dire temptations in the desert up to death on a cross, he stayed faithful. He defeated the devil, repairing the rift torn open by original sin. And Mary, the new Eve, was there with Him, full of grace, faithful at the foot of the cross.

True, our lives will always be a struggle against both our own sinful tendencies and the power of sin active in the world around us.

But it is in that very struggle that our lives take on transcendent meaning — we become soldiers of Christ’s Kingdom.

Because God has revealed the truth about the origin of evil and the way of Redemption, we never have to be surprised either by our own weakness or by the injustice and suffering we encounter in the world.

We know the story! We know what’s going on!

Today, when Jesus comes to strengthen us for the battle by giving us His own strength in Holy Communion, let’s renew our faith in this story, and let’s renew our commitment to follow in Christ’s footsteps, not in Adam and Eve’s.

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